Dresden is a city of contrasts. It is proud of its past as a center for Saxon royalty and likes to call itself "Florence on the Elbe." But Dresden’s recent reputation is more for being right-wing and hostile towards foreigners. It is one of the places in eastern Germany where anti-migrant and anti-Islam feelings have run highest. These feelings have also mobilized another half of the city to make sure that welcoming refugees and migrants remains a priority; numerous integration projects abound in Dresden.
It’s Monday, October 7, and it's cold. Hundreds of people wind through Dresden’s city center waving flags with the German colors: black, red and gold. Some have Russian Federation flags too and others hold placards reading: “Stop the Islamization of Germany.”
This is the weekly PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West) demonstration which starts in the Neumarkt square just beside Dresden’s famous “Frauenkirche” (Church of our Lady). The demonstrators are flanked by police and, at certain points, tens of shouting “anti-fa” protestors who want to counteract PEGIDA’s ideas and the image they have leant to the city.
These two images of Dresden exist side by side in the city, just as they do on this cold Monday night. The historic buildings, under which the protestors shout their opposing slogans, are also used by both sides to illustrate their points. On the wall of the Frauenkirche hangs a sign saying “blessed are the peacemakers,” yet the square outside the church has become the meeting point for supporters of PEGIDA. The church itself remained in ruins, after allied bombardments during the Second World War, until 30 October 2005. Dresden’s history is complicated. Lutz Bachmann, PEGIDA’s founder, speaks to the crowd before and after the “walk” through town. Before, he warns the crowd that the movement stands for peace. After, back in the square, the rhetoric heats up somewhat. In a long speech about the divides in society, he suggests instead of worrying about the climate crisis, the Greens, the left-wingers “and any other extremists, including Islamists” and the “Lying Media (Lügenpresse)” would all be better off being buried in a deep grave. Bachmann suggests that he would fill in this grave and plant trees on top, thereby solving the climate crisis and getting rid of those “politically correct” annoyances which are appearing to stand in his way of victory. A victory which he says is coming. The local state broadcaster MDR later reports that Bachmann is being investigated by the police for these comments and for potentially disseminating hate speech.
Although Bachmann doesn’t directly mention it, PEGIDA is also “anti-mass migration” and some people carry placards to that effect. PEGIDA also declares opposition to “political or religious fanaticism, radicalism, Islamization, ‘Genderization’ and the early-sexualization of children.” They call upon the government to “sort out the asylum crisis and its effects.” They do admit that refugee status should be granted in the case of “war, political or religious persecution and sudden catastrophes,” but everyone arriving should be kept in “closed camps for three months until their identity and their background can be ascertained.” Anyone told that their asylum claims are not valid should be “returned to their home country immediately.”Another side to Dresden
This image of Dresden is not the one new residents in the city want people to leave with. “I want to tell you that not everything that you hear and read in the media is correct,” says Danial Alfahel, a tour guide with Querstadein. "Dresden is not just PEGIDA, it is much much more than that. It is multicultural and full of different people," he says.
Querstadtein is a community organization based in Berlin and Dresden which specializes in taking people on tours of those cities and giving people a different perspective of the things they see around them. Be that seeing the city through the eyes of someone who is homeless or seeing the city through the eyes of migrants and refugees. Danial is a refugee from Syria who arrived in Dresden in 2015 and is now happy to call the city his home. That hasn’t stopped him experiencing racism though. “I have had racist experiences in Dresden,” he continues; “and I meet people who vote for the AFD or attend PEGIDA demonstrations through work, but we are able to discuss this. Dresden is not ‘just’ a Nazi-city.”
Danial’s view of Dresden mirrors that of many people who are working with refugees and migrants across the city. Their eyes tend to roll when you mention PEGIDA or the racist image of the city. They are tired of being ignored for the work they are doing within the city. At the same time, they don’t want to minimize the anti-migrant views which continue to exist.
Five years of demonstrations
PEGIDA has been demonstrating for five years now. One Dresden resident remembers the year they started. “December 2014 was a high point of the PEGIDA demonstrations in Dresden,” says Ellen Demnitz-Schmidt, who runs Spike, a youth project in Dresden.
“The people supporting PEGIDA felt that they were losing something,” continues Demnitz-Schmidt. “Me and many others, as Dresden citizens, felt it was important to go along and show that we were opposed to their way of thinking. But PEGIDA got bigger and bigger and, although our opposition was vocal, we were relatively few compared to them.”
Demnitz-Schmidt says that after a while turning up every Monday to try and stop PEGIDA, she decided she needed to do something else to show her support for the new arrivals in the city. That's why she added welcome services at Spike and opened up the youth center to offer advice, a place to meet, to learn, to make music and be creative.
Divided by the Elbe
Dresden as a city is divided by the river Elbe. On one side is the so-called Altstadt (old town) where palaces, galleries and museums built during the reign of August der Starke (August the Strong) 1670-1733 adorn the rich historic center. Further out, big blocks of Soviet-era social housing host communities, German and migrant, facing high unemployment and poverty. On the other side of the Elbe the so called “Neustadt” (New Town) dates mostly from the end of the 19th century. Here, as Danial explains to those who attend his tours, the area is much more multicultural and full of students and people from all over the world enjoying the bars, restaurants, cinemas and shops.
Supporters of PEGIDA tend to hang out in the Altstadt. They hark back to the rich Saxon history and see the traditions that stem from there as something which is under threat. In fact, the organization states on its website that it wants to “protect the German identity” and make sure that everyone “respects German art, culture, language and traditions.” Their march on Monday is accompanied by folk musicians.
Although PEGIDA and the AFD are different political entities, they have sometimes joined together at demonstrations. On October 7 the vice president of the Saxon regional parliament André Wendt from the AFD attended the PEGIDA demo as a “private person.” He was heavily criticized by the Green and Left parties on his council and has since tried to distance himself from speeches that Bachmann gave that night.
In Dresden’s city council, the AFD hold 12 seats, as do the left party Die Linke; the conservative CDU holds 13. The Greens are in the majority with 15 seats and the social democrats SPD hold 6, the liberal FDP party five, and the Free Voters four and independent candidates three.
Figures show that Dresden, like much of the rest of Saxony, still has a relatively low percentage of foreigners overall. In 2018, Dresden had 554,649 registered inhabitants. In June 2019 (the latest figures) Dresden counts 45,560 foreigners, or around eight percent of the total population. Many of those “foreigners” do not form part of the so-called “refugee wave” arriving in Germany since 2015. In fact, the highest percentage of “foreigners” in the city come from the Russian Federation, many have lived there for years. Only three percent of foreigners are asylum seekers in the city and 18 percent have received some kind of refugee status.
Planning for the future
There are currently 1,645 migrants who have had their asylum claims rejected by the authorities in Dresden. People that PEGIDA would like to see sent out of the city. All the figures are slightly lower than the last count taken in March 2018.
In July 2019, the city of Dresden unveiled its new asylum and integration plan up to 2022, which starts with a quote by Dresden's mayor, Dirk Hilbert, who said in 2017: “Whoever believes that integration is a one-way-street is wrong. Whoever believes that integration is something new, doesn’t know what they are talking about. Whoever believes that integration can’t succeed is causing themselves and others to lose hope.”
The new plan states that Dresden is working in many different directions in order to ensure that new arrivals to its confines are happy and accepted; that there are the possibilities provided to learn German, to be adequately housed, to seek work, education, good health, participation and freedom. The program declares that integration will have been achieved when migrants and locals understand each other and are able to live together and accept the multi-cultural nature of the city.
“I have suffered lots of racist incidents in Dresden,” confides 25-year-old Saed, which is not his real name. “When they find out I am from Syria, people tend to move away from me.” Saed arrived in the city a couple of years ago. Despite listing frequent incidents of racism from co-workers and passers-by Saed has worked hard to learn the language and make the city his home. He lives in a student rental with Germans in order to improve his already excellent language skills and this September he was able to start a new degree at university, after his first was interrupted by his flight from Syria.
In Dresden’s Neustadt, where Saed lives, the town council’s
plan appears to be working; in some parts of the Altstadt, perhaps not so much.
But despite the opposing political views that persist, stories of successful
interaction between Germans and new arrivals seem to be multiplying and adding
their voices to the proud history and beautiful palaces that have been
renovated in the Altstadt.